Hey there! Sheila here, writing today with my intrepid and illustrious co-author, Kim Leonard.
Yikes! Another survey! One day, it’s a professional association wanting to know where we stand on holding an online conference. The next, it’s your child’s school presenting options for remote or hybrid learning. Another day, it’s a retailer following up after an online purchase. It’s pretty easy to imagine how survey fatigue can creep in.
There are so many surveys out there! Everyone wants to know what’s going on, and it’s understandable. We’re in the midst of multiple interrelated global crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impacts, growing awareness and frustration with ongoing racial injustices, politics, and the economic consequences of it all. The world has changed in ways we could never have imagined impacting our daily lives – work, school, physical and mental health – and no one knows whether or how long these changes will last.
Organizations are still trying to deliver products and services, and need information about consumer and client needs and interests. Everyone wants to know how people are affected in order to redesign, retool, and adapt.
Not surprisingly, they continue to reach for one of the easiest research and evaluation tools we have – the survey! With both the first wave of surveys following the onset of the pandemic, then subsequent waves of them as the world adjusted to growing and shifting uncertainty, two interrelated problems inherent with survey design and administration rear their ugly heads:
1) survey fatigue, and
2) poorly constructed survey questions
Each results in a profound lack of adequate, useful, and actionable data.
What is survey fatigue?
Survey fatigue happens when people: 1.) tire of receiving surveys and feel burdened by numerous requests, or 2.) become bored, tired, or frustrated with the process of answering questions. In either case, respondents may decide not to start or not to complete the survey, and this nonresponse hinders data collection.
We discuss survey fatigue in Designing Quality Survey Questions, our co-authored text focused on purposeful survey design and crafting better questions.
“…key research on survey fatigue indicates that not only do respondents feel oversurveyed based on the number of surveys they are asked to complete, but also based on the relevance of the surveys to their lives (Porter, Whitcomb, & Weitzer, 2004, p. 65)” (as quoted in Robinson & Leonard, 2019, p. 11).
Many factors influence a respondent’s decision to complete a survey
Some of these factors include:
- The length of the survey
- The respondent’s interest in the topic
- The nature of the survey questions (e.g., whether they are personal or sensitive topics)
- How respondents feel about the organization or researcher (and their interest in helping them)
- Whether there are incentives for completing the survey
- The convenience of completing the survey (i.e., survey administration mode – paper, online, telephone)
- Whether respondents feel their voice/opinion will matter or make a difference
- Whether the survey is anonymous
Different factors will impact people’s decisions in different ways
What is important to one person may be unimportant to the next. An incentive that appeals to some will not appeal to all. What one person considers too personal to ask may not align with what others think and so on, such that there is no perfect formula of survey attributes that will entice all potential respondents to participate. So, what is a survey designer to do?
Mitigate survey fatigue with good survey design practices
Start with purpose
Engaging respondents, or any survey design goal for that matter starts with identifying why you are using a survey and what you expect it to accomplish.
“Identifying and articulating the specific purpose for conducting a survey helps focus the process of creating, prioritizing, and selecting questions. As survey questions are generated, revisiting the survey purpose from time to time helps keep the focus of the research needs at the forefront, as opposed to addressing interests that may not serve the articulated purpose. Pursuing interests that go beyond the survey purpose and research information needs contributes to scope creep, or mission creep, the expansion of a research project beyond its original goals. It is generally considered harmful to the effort, increasing respondent burden and potentially survey fatigue” (Robinson & Leonard, 2019, p. 31).
Convincing desired respondents that your survey is worth their time may require flexibility and creativity. For example, survey incentives don’t have to be monetary, gifts, or at all costly. An incentive for a respondent to complete a survey may just be the desire for their voice to be heard, to share their experiences, or to help the organization administering the survey.
Helping people understand why you need the data and what you will do with it can also boost engagement. Personalizing the appeal for data by connecting with respondents makes them part of the team, and generally, people like to contribute to an important effort to understand a phenomenon, or improve a program that may result in positive changes for people.
Gather only the data your need
“…it is simply unethical to gather information that isn’t needed. This practice can be viewed as highly intrusive in some circumstances and contributes to the already present challenges of survey fatigue and nonresponse. Researchers should aim to capture only the information necessary to answer the stated research or evaluation questions. Of course, this requires being quite certain about what exactly is needed to answer those questions before administering any survey” (Robinson & Leonard, 2019, p. 36).
Ways to engage survey respondents
- Compose a compelling survey invitation
- Offer tangible incentives (money, gift cards, prizes, etc.)
- Promise to share results
- Ask questions that are of interest to respondents
- Use innovative question formats (e.g., drag and drop pictures)
- Make it visually appealing and compelling (i.e., format questions so they are easy to read and respond to, organize in a meaningful way, use large enough text size, use whitespace)
- Let respondents know why their voice is important and how their data will help
- Limit open-ended questions, especially when the survey topic may not hold high interest for respondents
Finally, focus on good practices for question construction to mitigate survey fatigue.
Our book, Designing Quality Survey Questions, is full of more detailed advice on developing survey questions that will take you through our purposeful survey design process. Or, contact us about a survey design workshop for your organization!
For more about survey fatigue and other response-related challenges.
- Porter, S. R., Whitcomb, M. E., & Weitzer, W. H. (2004). Multiple surveys of students and survey fatigue. New Directions for Institutional Research, 121, 63–73.
- Chapter 2, “Reducing People’s Reluctance to Respond to Surveys,” in Dillman et al. (2014).
Check out my other articles on survey design.